Visa or Mastercard—what’s the difference, anyway?

Visa or Mastercard—what’s the difference, anyway?

How these financial tools are similar, and what sets them apart

You apply for a credit card and the bank sends you one when you’re approved. Whether it’s a V, +0.37%   a Mastercard MA, +0.18%   or another type of payment card doesn’t factor into the process. Or does it?

Find out whether you should choose Visa or Mastercard when applying for credit cards and what other information you should know about these companies before selecting a credit card.

The difference between Visa and Mastercard

The only real difference that stands between Visa and Mastercard is that your card works on the payment network that the company operates. A Visa card won’t work on Mastercard’s network, and vice versa.

Ultimately, any other differences in cards come from the specific card you have. Not all Mastercard cards are the same, and not all Visa cards are the same.

How are Visa and Mastercard cards similar?

Visa and Mastercard are both card networks. That means they manage the payment networks on which their cards work, but they don’t actually approve or issue cards to consumers. When you receive a Visa or Mastercard credit card, you get it from a bank such as Chase JPM, +0.49%  , Wells Fargo WFC, +0.47%   or other organizations.

This is in contrast to how cards such as Discover DFS, +0.87%   and American Express AXP, +0.53%   work. These companies operate payment networks, but they also sometimes issue cards directly.

One benefit of the way Visa and Mastercard work is that they are able to foster much wider acceptance than other credit card companies. Visa’s network is 28 million merchants strong. Mastercard’s network features 30 million merchants. It’s rare that one of the types of cards is not accepted when another is. You’re much more likely to find a merchant that accepts Visa and Mastercard while not accepting Discover or American Express.

Other similarities between Visa and Mastercard

Because the specifics of your card depend on what kind of Visa or Mastercard you have, both types of cards offer a variety of options. Here are some of the considerations and options you’ll find whether you choose Mastercard or Visa.

1. Credit scores are required for cards

The credit card companies don’t decide whether you’re approved for a card or not. It’s the bank sponsoring the card that makes the final call because they’re the one taking the financial risk to extend you credit. Some cards require good to excellent credit scores for approval, while others are approved for individuals with lower credit ratings.

Some banks may even offer credit repair cards for individuals with even lower credit ratings. These tend to have very low credit limits and may come with higher interest rates. Often, cards with the best benefits are approved only for those with good credit ratings.

Find out more about credit scores and what is typically considered a strong score before you apply for any type of credit card.

2. Rewards cards are an option

Both Mastercard and Visa work with banks that provide rewards credit cards. These can include:

  • Travel rewards, such as points toward discounts on hotel stays, airfare, dining or even Uber UBER, +0.00%   rides
  • Store-specific rewards, such as points at retailers like Best Buy BBY, +1.38%   or Home Depot HD, +0.44%  
  • Food and beverage rewards, such as free beverages at Starbucks SBUX, +0.79%  or discounts at favorite restaurant chains
  • Cash back earned on each dollar you spend

The type of rewards you earn with your card depend on the card program, which is offered by the banks, and you can find Visa and Mastercard options for all of the above.

You can find some of the best options for rewards and other credit cards via the search tools. That’s true whether you’re looking for Mastercard cards or Visa cards.

3. Fees can range for each card

Fees are typically set by the banks and not by Visa or Mastercard. What you pay in over-limit, balance transfer, late fees or foreign transaction fees depends on the bank, the credit card offer and the agreement you sign. Don’t rely on the name on the card, and instead, make sure you fully review the offer before you agree to it so you know what fees you’re on the hook for.

4. Apple and Google Pay are options

Most Mastercard and Visa credit cards work with smart wallet options such as Apple Pay AAPL, +0.21%   or Google Pay GOOG, +0.01%  . This is good news for credit card holders who are worried about the security risks that come with swiping a card. Instead, you can link your card to the app on your smartphone and pay via your phone at any payment station that accepts these methods.

5. Credit cardholder discount programs

If you use a business credit card, you may be entitled to save money on various purchases. Visa offers its Visa SavingsEdge program which features discounts of up to 15% or more on qualifying merchants that are automatically refunded to cardholders’ statements. Participating merchants include gas stations, hotels and car rental agencies.

Mastercard offers its similar Easy Savings program with discounts for qualifying purchases from gas stations, hotels and car repair chains. In both cases, cardholders must enroll their cards to realize these savings.

Can you choose your own payment network?

In cases where banks work with both Mastercard and Visa, you may be able to contact your credit card company to ask for a specific network. This is true even if you were already issued a card on one of the networks already.

Because the bank determines APR, terms and rewards programs, there is often no reason to get into this level of detail when requesting a card. However, Visa and Mastercard both do back some benefits associated with their cards, including rental car insurance, buyer protections, extended warranties and travel insurance. If one of these benefits is extremely important to you, it may be worth it to change to the card network that offers the best option.

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